Defence Forces in disarray over ‘mistaken’ email and stranded soldiers

Minister apologises to families of soldiers stuck in Syria due to ‘clearance’ issues

The growing strains within the Defence Forces erupted on Wednesday with an order abolishing the notice period for naval personnel going on tours of duty being rescinded within hours, and the Minister of State for the Defence Forces having to apologise to the families of 119 soldiers left stranded in Syria.

The email, sent to senior naval personnel on ships, directed crews be told that the normal 72 hours’ notice given to them to provide short-term relief on ships would no longer apply and they had to be ready for duty without warning.

In addition, the normal “two years at sea, two years not at sea” rule was also being abolished because it was “no longer tenable”, implying crews would have to be ready to put to sea at any time, according to the email.

The email was circulated by the Office in Charge, Personal Management Section (essentially the HR department of the Naval Service) "on the direction", it said, of the Flag Officer of the Naval Service, Commodore Mick Malone.


On Wednesday night, a spokesman for the Defence Forces said the email was a mistake and the order in it was not in fact in force.

“An email was distributed in error, without the approval of the Flag Officer Commanding Naval Service, and has been rescinded with immediate effect,” he said.

The email, which sparked two emergency motions at the PDforra annual conference in Castlebar condemning the move and seeking clarification, spoke of the failure of “the best efforts of all concerned to alleviate current crewing restrictions” which consequently “precludes the ability to provide personnel with a guaranteed minimum of 72 hours’ notice for short-term reliefs”.

It said the change applied with immediate effect to all ranks and all commands and would be reviewed in January next.

Earlier in the day, Minister of State for the Defence Forces Paul Kehoe had to apologise in the Dáil to the families of 119 soldiers stranded in Syria, unable to return home this week as planned, following six months' United Nations duty.

‘Diplomatic clearance’

Mr Kehoe said the problem was due to what he termed “diplomatic clearance” not having been obtained but he refused to explain what that meant. He refused also to say where the problem originated – in Ireland, the Lebanon or Syria – but acknowledged that he became aware of it last week, several days before the abortive attempt to get the soldiers home on Tuesday.

Mr Kehoe announced €1,000 compensation to each of the stranded soldiers, members of the 57th Infantry Group. He said he hoped they would be able to return home on October 15th.

Soldiers’ families, expecting them home on Tuesday last, had booked holidays and scheduled family events in the expectation of their return. Many took to social media in the past two days to express their distress.

Addressing the PDforra delegates yesterday evening, Mr Kehoe again apologised and said that on this, as well as the issue of pay, he would lobby hard for the Defence Forces at cabinet.

Delegates listened in silence and were mute in their applause when he concluded.

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh

Peter Murtagh is a contributor to The Irish Times